My Culture (Almost) Scared Me Out of Intimate Friendships

I grew up in a time of widely accepted hyper-masculinity. For young boys in the early 2000’s, it was not okay to be seen as weak or even remotely feminine. It was encouraged to be cold, calloused, and even cruel. I still see this mentality carry over in today’s youth, and I see these expectations projected onto and from grown adults. For young men in America, it is only socially acceptable to show love and affection to young women who we’re romantically and sexually attracted to. And even in those cases, men are still expected to show a lack of emotional attachment and vulnerability. This was a blunt reality when I was a child, and today, it seems like an unspoken assumption.

In addition to this, homophobia was (and still is) a cultural norm. Especially when I was growing up, gay was a word used to demean people for being sensitive or even just artistic. In school, “that’s gay” meant “that’s stupid” or “that’s bad”. Gay was often a word used to intimidate young boys out of expressing complex emotions. And if someone was actually LGBTQ, their social life was over. Coming out of the closet in middle school and high school was a death wish. It seemed like the equivalent of writing “kick me” a thousand times on your back. If you weren’t tough enough, you were labeled “gay”, and labeling someone as gay was enough to alienate them forever.

I hadn’t realized it until recently, but this kind of environment had some serious effects on me. I remember internalizing this attitude and adopting it for myself, even as a questioning youth who wrestled with his own sexual identity. I didn’t want anyone to think I was gay, so I limited my interactions with male friends. I never dared to hug them, and I certainly would never be caught dead telling any of them that I loved them. This didn’t really make friendships with young women any easier either. There was pressure to view women as sexual objects and to talk about them as such, and when you view women in this way, it is impossible to form any type of meaningful connection with them. For a long time, I was stuck without any emotionally-invested friendships.

This became a little easier when I became a Christian because my church was obsessed with the idea of same-sex friendships. I think a lot of churches are obsessed with this idea because Christian culture is also obsessed with the concept of purity. The idea being that if you spend most of your time with other Christian men, you’ll have less opportunities to fantasize about Christian women (although, I never really had to worry about lusting after women, anyway). This was initially very helpful for me. I was able to develop close male friendships, and to begin to understand how healthy relationships between other men ought to be. We built each other up instead of tearing each other down. At last, it felt like I was accepted.

However, there is a loneliness attached to this seemingly ideal way of life. In my experience, Christian friendships seem to be a way for us to cope with being single. It holds many of us over when we’re not in a romantic relationship. And as soon as we find that special someone, it is made okay (and often encouraged) to invest all of our time into that one person. Friends become less and less of a priority so that romantic relationships can have center stage. Simply put, Christian culture idolizes marriage.

For a gay Christian (especially one who has a traditional view of marriage and sexuality), this loneliness is amplified. I will most likely never marry. I don’t want to. But this doesn’t mean that I’d like to be miserable. I still desire close, intimate relationships with people I care deeply about. I am just choosing not to find that in the context of marriage. The idolization of marriage is lonely for me because I often wonder what will happen when I graduate from college and move away from friends and family. Do I just die alone in an empty apartment, eating stale Chinese food without anyone to actually care for?

If you’re reading this as a straight person, don’t think that this loneliness doesn’t apply to you, too. Because of the fact that so many of us see friendships as a waiting room for marriage, pressure is applied to many heterosexual Christians to find a spouse as early as possible. I can’t tell if this is because Christians see great benefit from marriage or if it’s because we’re afraid of being alone. In either circumstance, this leaves lots of people feeling inadequate when they’re without a significant other. Romantic relationships, like all close relationships, affirm people in the assurance that they are greatly valued and treasured by someone else. That’s a wonderful thing. But like all good things, we have a habit of distorting the goodness of relationships, and treating romantic relationships like they are the only ones that can make us feel whole.

A homophobic culture made me afraid of the intimacy of a friend. For a long time, I felt nervous about expressing affection for male friends. Even today, although I’m better at it now, I still have a habit of shaming myself out of telling someone I miss them, or even just expressing general care. On the other hand, Christian culture gave me a cynical view of friendship. As I got better at expressing myself to friends, I also became more bitter about the possibility of losing them if and when they enter a romantic relationship. This is a painful combination of fear and distrust. To say that this mentality does not produce healthy relationships is an understatement.

In our culture, it’s normal for men to have “buddies” who you call every so often for fishing and poker nights, but not to have friends with whom you confide your deepest fears and greatest joys. It’s normal to leave your friends behind when you find yourself in a dating relationship, but not to stay committed to your friends even when you have a romantic partner. I can’t help but feel like this is backwards. These options don’t result in the best case scenario for anyone. This leaves men without any genuine friendships (and no, your partner is not the only person you need to be your friend).

We need to stop shaming men out of having intimate friendships with one another. It’s a good thing. Having close friends that you look forward to seeing in the future is healthy. Having friends that you can turn to in times of trouble is wonderful. When did it become wrong for men to be emotionally attached to others? All of us experience loneliness from time to time, but I feel like so many men bring it on themselves. Vulnerability is hard, but we shouldn’t stop being vulnerable just because we’re bad at it. Despite what the world around us says, being open and honest builds relationships, and that open honesty should extend to your friends. If it doesn’t, we’re giving ourselves a more bleak and isolated life than God designed us to live.

I’m not destined to die alone in an apartment eating stale Chinese food. Nobody is. We have the ability to reach out and love our friends. And in addition to that, we also have the ability to receive that love. I have great friends, and for their sake and mine, I cannot withhold love from them. The world around me almost scared me out of having intimate friendships, but I refused. Friendship is one of the things that makes life so wonderful. I will not let homophobic attitudes or the idolization of marriage take that away.

 

 

 

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How Growing Up Outside of Church Influenced My Faith

If you know me at all, you probably know that I am an Evangelical Christian. However, some of you reading this may not realize that I was not raised that way. Sure, I had my exposures to Christianity, but I never really followed or understood anything about Jesus until I was about 16-years-old. I grew up in a family that encouraged free-thinking and following whatever path felt right to you. Halfway through high school, I decided that Jesus felt right for me, and I’ve been a Christian for going on five years now. I didn’t realize that it wasn’t super common for a Christian to not be raised in a church-going home until I started attending a private Christian college. I only know one or two other people at school who share my experience of growing up in a “secular” world and then coming to what often feels like Hogwarts School of Faith and Christianity.

Being in a Christian environment for a few years now, I’ve realized that growing up the way I did influenced the way I view my faith, and in many ways, it has helped me grow as a Christian. I am thankful for my upbringing and I would like to share some ways that growing up outside of the church has influenced me.

1.) Face-value answers don’t satisfy me.

I was taught to question everything and to only believe something after I have seriously thought and considered everything about it. An exhausting process, yes, but I am thankful for it. Because of that mindset, I have searched the Bible for days on end trying to find answers for all of my burning questions. I tend to go back and read Scriptures that a pastor shared in church and I check for myself to see whether or not what they said was true. It feels like I question my faith more than the average person, but because of that, I am able to grow and solidify what I believe to be true.

2.) Listening is vital.

Christians have a bad reputation for discriminating against those who share opposing views. I cannot say with a good conscience that I do not have and have never had my share of biases (because every breathing person has some form of bias), but I can say that I have always learned to be respectful of and even embrace others’ differences. Because of this, I now take time to try and understand someone else’s story. Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Since I want people to listen to me and what I think about God, I feel a responsibility to listen to others about their life experiences and how that has shaped their view of God.

3.) God is not a Republican. 

I mean, God’s not a Democrat either, but I specifically point out that He’s not a Republican because sometimes the Church can make it seem like you have to agree with Republican political views in order to be a Christian. I actually grew up not really liking Conservatives, and I gave my life to Jesus while I still had that mindset. I ditched that way of thinking a while ago because I realized that God doesn’t care who you vote for. He just wants us to honor Him and to love others.

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There are probably more things that I have learned about God because of my upbringing, but those seem to be the three that stick out the most. You don’t have to grow up outside of the church to learn any of these things. I just happened to learn them because I did. Much love.

Crawling Back to God

I just came off of another semester of college. On the surface, I had a really great semester. I started a new major, uncovered my passion for film, began a journey as an RA (Resident Assistant), made new friends and strengthened other relationships. I learned a lot this semester  and it would be silly of me not to acknowledge all of the good that has happened. Unfortunately, underneath all of the good things, there was lots of bad as well. This semester, I had a reintroduction to anxiety. Some nights, I found it very difficult to fall asleep. Other times, it was hard for me to wake up and face the world. Through much of the semester, I had a lingering sadness that never quite left me alone. I stopped reading my Bible, I stopped praying, and I stopped acknowledging God in my every day life. I befriended doubt and I stopped caring about finding an answer to my questions.

None of this made sense to me. When I entered this past semester, I had just come back from the greatest summer of my life, working with teens and traveling to summer camps every week. God had answered many of my prayers and I saw Him at work in those around me. It felt like I was on the mountaintop before school started. How is it possible that I could crash down to the valley so quickly and without warning?  I would pray and not find an answer, so I prayed less. I continued to not hear from God, so I prayed even less. I went from praying multiple times a day to praying before bed. Bedtime prayers turned into Monday, Wednesday and Friday prayers. And those prayers turned into sporadic praying which turned into praying only with the congregation at church. And if I missed church, I just wouldn’t pray.

Scripture stopped seeming appealing to me. What once felt like the guiding instruction for my life had become pious words that were impractical to live out. I would hear a verse at Sunday worship and I would tune it out from fear of being irritated by the impossible demands of my Lord and Savior. Occasionally, I would find a verse on my own that really spoke to me and for that week, I felt a spiritual high. But a high is a high is a high, even if it is a spiritual one. A high doesn’t last long enough to sustain you more than a day at most. I realized that the hard way. Soon, bitterness became my best friend, and I couldn’t even sing a worship song and convince myself that I still loved God with all of my heart, mind, and strength. I gave the Lord a tenth of a tank of gas at best. I exiled myself from everything I knew to be true. The more I tried to distance myself from God, the better it seemed to work. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be happy? Why couldn’t I just be satisfied with the Lord? I never found an answer.

Today I am home from school. After spending most of the morning in bed and staring at the television, I decided to read the Bible again. I found Ecclesiastes 11:1. It says, “Cast your bread upon the water, for after many days, it will find you.” I initially started to read past it, but something about that verse made me think. I usually think of that verse as a call to do good, but today, it seems like more of an explanation of why things may seem so bad. The bread I was casting out was bitter and stale. I was casting out leftovers from the summer. I stopped caring about freshly baked bread, or even the cheap bread from the supermarket. I was just rehearsing the same old song and dance I learned from living a Christian life for a few years. But here’s the kicker- the Christian life is not stagnant.

Even if your faith goes nowhere and does nothing, the world continues to turn. No matter what type of bread you cast unto the waters, it is still going to come back to you, and you’re going to have to deal with the consequences. I was giving God my apathy and I found apathy in return. Because of this, life seemed so much heavier. I worried more because I didn’t give my troubles to God. I slept less because I was trying to deal with life by myself. The Christian life isn’t one lived in solitude. It’s not one that stops moving, and it’s not one that waits for you to have your life figured out. I learned this the hard way.

I had to understand that I am not alone and that I never really was. God has always been with me and at work in me. We all struggle and we all feel alone sometimes. I’m not going to make a bold declaration that the sorrow is going to leave or that hardships will never return. Instead, I will declare that God’s strength is sufficient for me, whether or not my emotions agree. I don’t have to feel like God is strong in order for God to be powerful. I just need to continue asking God for grace as I continue on the path that He has me on. I don’t believe in a god that doesn’t work when I don’t feel very good. I believe in the God that never lets go of me, even when I’m kicking and screaming in my own entitlement.

Now, I have the responsibility of crawling back to God. I am learning that not every return is an emotional breakthrough. Sometimes it is a small and subtle realization that causes you to slowly but surely turn back to the loving arms of Jesus Christ. Do I have my life figured out? Of course not. Am I still going to struggle with life after I post this? Definitely. But that’s not really what’s important. What is important is that God is sovereign through it all. It is His strength that will guide me through. I am just as broken and messed up as everyone else I know, but God shines bright in my darkness. I’m doing the easy part. All I have to do is decide to follow Jesus despite my troubles. God is the one at work here. He’s the one who let His Son be murdered on my behalf so that I could even make a decision to turn away from my sin. I am crawling back to God and I am not ashamed. When I am weak, then I am strong.

Contentment from a Kid Who Moved A Lot

As a kid, my family moved around a lot. We never really left the city we called home, but we did travel to different neighborhoods full of different people, stories, legends, and quirks. I never questioned it when I was in that season of life, but now that I’m in my third year of college and live there for a significant portion of the year, I’m realizing how much moving around effected me. Not necessarily in bad ways- just ways. For example, the concept of contentment has always been difficult for my heart to take in. When you’re in a new environment every couple of years, you start to see the world through an ever changing lens. For some people, this can really be detrimental. For others, it’s a growing experience. I like to think I’ve experienced a bit of both.

Because I am so used to change, the thought of traveling somewhere far away doesn’t scare me. I can see myself on the beaches of California, the busy streets of Chicago, or in the corn fields of small town New York. Like most things, this has its ups and downs. The good news is that I am very adaptable. New situations and challenges are always going to take a good deal of adjusting to, but they never make me want to quit. Adapting to college wasn’t as much of a struggle for me as it was for many students. Neither was working as a camp counselor with zero camp experience. I don’t always look forward to the challenge of adapting to new environments, but it has become a part of my story. I just know that I will have to grow with changes and that I will most likely walk away stronger.

The bad news is that I am constantly looking for somewhere else to go. Even if I really enjoy where I am and what I am doing, I find myself looking for the next step before I’ve even taken the first one. I don’t just anticipate changes, I expect them. Sometimes, I even plan them out. One of the most constant themes in my life has been change, and because of that, I find change to be stabilizing. If I go somewhere new, try a new skill, pick a new major, or make a new friend, I feel like my life is going as planned (or at least happily without one). When things start to become stagnant, I become worried and anxious that I’m not growing or learning anything new. That freaks me out. Routine is a safe space for most people, but for me, it’s a fight against boredom.

Lately, I have been noticing my discontent in several areas of my life, and it has been quite eye-opening. I realized what a life time of change has done to me. My brain is hard wired to change even when things are good. Recently, I realized that I am an adult and I can make the decision not to change something. I don’t have to “fix” something that I am satisfied with. Even though my instincts may say otherwise, I don’t need to move away to discover a piece of myself or to make myself happy. Happiness is a mindset. My identity cannot be found anywhere besides where I am right now. I can look for a cool experience and I can wish to do something great, but I cannot make myself happy by trying to find somewhere new to call home. I don’t need to change my major five more times or go in search for new friends. I can choose accept where I am, who I am, and what I am doing. I know that none of these things will stay the same forever, and that’s fine. But for the time being, I choose to be content with all that I have.

If you’re not content with what you have, where you are, or who you are, I hope that you can get there. You can be content while on the road and you can be content if you’re stuck in a small town. It’s not a matter of circumstance. It’s a matter of choice and in finding the beauty of the hand you’ve been dealt. Even if life is messy and hard, you can choose joy. And if life is simple and structured, you can choose joy. It’s okay to want a new challenge, but you can’t always “find yourself” when you up and leave. Sometimes self-discovery involves working with what you’ve got. People and places change all the time, so there’s no sense in putting all of your hopes in either of those things. Find the joy in what you have and be content with stability. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

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Take off your shoes, stay a while.

Compliments and Why You Should Take Them

One of my favorite things in the world is a good compliment. I love giving them out, but honestly, a piece of me enjoys getting them more than anything else. Is it selfish? Possibly. However, I think there’s a lot to be learned in receiving compliments. So many of us are shy about hearing good things about ourselves, but I am going to attempt to break you of that. (Note: I said attempt. Results may vary.)

I know so many people who reject compliments in the name of humility. They don’t want to be seen as arrogant, so they try and prevent themselves from getting an inflated ego by shying away from kind words. Many of us feel awkward when we’re given too much attention, so we try to deflect compliments at any and all costs.

Humility and modesty are great attributes to carry, but let me challenge you with something: are you really being modest, or are you insecure about the person God has made you to be? I think the reason so many of us have a hard time swallowing compliments is because we’ve gotten so used to comparing ourselves to those around us that we don’t take the time to appreciate the blessings in our lives. We’ve gotten so used to seeing the good in others, that we have neglected that God sees us as precious in His sight as well.

Compliments are much more than flattering words to turn you into a self-centered machine. Compliments point to the unique characteristics, gifts, and abilities that you have been blessed with- gifts that God has given to you. When someone compliments you, they are rarely trying to inflate your ego. More likely than not, they are trying to show that they love and respect the person that God has placed in their lives. Know the difference between flattery and admiration, but don’t assume it’s all flattery.

Are you comfortable with the way God made you? Can you recognize that you’re more than a smile and a bad hair day? If not, let me tell you something: you’re more than what you do or the daily mistakes that you make. You’re a warrior. You’re courageous. You’re a hard worker, a selfless caregiver, and an honorable friend. You are worthy of being complimented. Stop believing the lies that you’re not amazing, and that your life isn’t direct proof of God’s existence. It is. No one is telling you to stop being humble or to think of yourselves as better than others. Instead, take a moment to realize that you also have good qualities, and that you have every right to graciously accept a kind word.

So be free! Take a compliment today.

Who I Am After a Summer on the Road

This summer, I had the opportunity to be on a ministry team with Houghton College. Basically, all that means is that I hopped in a van with three other people, and traveled to a new summer camp each week. So when someone asks me about my summer, I struggle to find an adequate response. So, instead of constantly trying to wrap up what two months of non-stop youth ministry looks like, I’m going to answer with this blog.

My camp experience was unique from most camp stories because I traveled to a new camp each week. I worked with a new staff, new director, new camp ground, and new campers every week for about eight weeks. I’m tired just thinking about that. I knew from the beginning what this job would entail, but the still small voice inside of me told me to go, and I am so glad that I listened.

Camp forcibly removed me from my comfort zone. I’m comfortable in the back seat where I can mind my own business and keep my opinions to myself. However, as a camp counselor, you’re forced to be front and center, directly working with students who have deeper wounds than you could imagine. Sometimes I feel like I have been dealt a rough hand in life. But then I talk with a student who lost their father to a drug overdose, or a student who has literally never been told that he has the ability to accomplish anything. Hearing their stories broke me. The issues that I have had to work through seem minimal at best compared to what some of these kids have faced, and that sucks. I can pray for them, and hope that God intervenes in their lives, but realistically, I have to walk away. I can’t be with them after the week ends, and telling them that I’d be there for them after camp would only make things worse.

That was a lot to take in, but camp isn’t all rain clouds. I had the opportunity to see some lives changed by the grace of God. Some of my campers felt like they had been freed from years of anger and resentment towards family members. And some of them learned what it truly means to be loved by God. Some of the kids with the deepest wounds also found the sweetest victory by the end of the week. I connected with so many great students, and I will carry their stories with me forever.

This summer showed me how to love unconditionally. Jesus loved the worst of the sinners, and didn’t flinch at the thought of sharing a table with broken people. This summer, I really got a taste of what that really means. Most of the students I encountered needed to be loved more than anything else. They didn’t need to be yelled at, lectured, or told that they were wrong. They needed to be shown what the love of Christ looks like. And that means welcoming them with open arms, whether or not they want to change anything about their life. It means building relationships and seeing people as more than projects in need of improvement.

I also learned to not doubt myself so often. God has given each of us gifts and abilities that help us in the situations that He places us in. I always knew that was true for those around me, but I always left myself out of the group of people with gifts. I was on a ministry team for a reason, and it’s not because I’m the greatest camp counselor, or that I love God more than anyone else. Humility is important, but it’s also important to remember who the Lord has made you to be. This summer, I feel like I really came to terms with who I am. I feel so much more confident in myself, and more than that, I am so much more confident in who God is.

Lastly, I learned to lean on others. I am independent to a fault, and sometimes (most of the time), I choose not to reach out for help when I need it the most. However, when you’re living and traveling with three other people, they begin to see the best and worst of you. I had no choice but to depend on my team for support and guidance. If I didn’t, I would have lost my mind, and I would have hated every minute of being a camp counselor. God gave us friendship. Community was His idea. Who are we to not lean on those around us? “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:12) I had three amazing strands to pull me through each camp, and I would not have been able to do this without them.

Before this summer, I had never been to a summer camp. I never really counseled impressionable students before. Heck, I had never even spent more than a week outside of New York. I was nervous about how I would do, and whether or not I would even enjoy myself. Things are a little different now. Now, I feel like I can take on the world. I feel ready for any challenge that may come my way because I know that God is in control. He gave me this summer to prepare for another chapter in my life. Listen to the soft voice of God, especially when it tells you to do something unusual. You never know where He will lead you or how you will grow as a result. These past few months changed me. Camp changed me. God changed me.